Last weekend I watched ‘Thirteen Assassins,’ ‘Inglourious Basterds’ and ‘The Raid’. All three films came with an 18 rating and it was easy to see why. Some of the violence was toe-curling and had me reaching for the nearest cushion to blot out the view. By the time I finished, my mind was swirling with Samurai, nasty Nazis and Jakarta’s most crazy panga-wielding gangsters. It’s amazing how the vilest characters stick in the brain.
Monday, it was back to my clinical psychologist, Kim Slade, the main protagonist featured in my forthcoming novel ‘Beautiful Losers’; Tuesday and Wednesday, I concentrated on detectives from someone else’s, as yet, unpublished work. Add this to a load of virtual friends and followers and, mentally speaking, you have the ingredients for the perfect psycho storm.
Fortunately for me on Thursday, I beat a retreat and took off solo for a twenty-four hour pre-scheduled trip to see family and friends. It was more than ‘touching base’. It was a chance for me to hear and listen to news, talk about stuff that matters and to focus on others, rather than on virtual others, and it put me in mind of a conversation I had with a writer some years ago before my novels were published.
Generous with her time and advice, she also confessed that she’d far rather spend time with the characters in her stories than members of her family. To be fair, the writer in question wrote family sagas so, perhaps, there wasn’t that much of a disconnection. Had she penned dark tales of serial killers, drug lords and rapists, would she have been so keen, I wondered?
The fact is, that if you’re in the writing game, it’s easy to get caught up with all those fictional folk and let real life pass you by. New writers are often told to ‘get inside the skin of’ characters in order to make them as vivid and three-dimensional as possible. It’s good advice and, therefore, no surprise, that people on the page can often seem more real than those with whom we live. So where’s the problem?
The nature of spending oceans of time alone with good guys and villains can have a strange, detaching effect and it doesn’t stop when the shed or study door is closed, the computer switched off, or the pen parked. Even asleep, the brain continues to process that last scene, who did what to whom and why they did it, so that when you wake – my optimum time appears to be around 3.00 a.m. when I’m writing a novel – it’s as if you never said goodbye. I’ve lost count of the times my nearest and dearest have told me, individually and collectively, that ‘you’re not really here, are you?’ Rumbled, I used to respond with a rough grunt of denial. Next, I progressed to a smile of apology. (After all, it’s no fun being with someone who has their mind on other, seemingly more interesting and alluring, pursuits.) Nowadays, I like to believe I’ve struck a healthy balance, but it’s taken me a long time, years actually, to achieve it. So what changed?
Age probably has something to do with it and the realisation that, as loved as they are, fictional characters are no substitute for flesh and blood, friends and, even, foes. Sometimes, a writer needs to beat a hasty retreat.